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Judgment day at teachers union

Times Staff Writer

The band of left-wing, dissident back-benchers that took over the city teachers union three years ago faces a verdict this week on its revolution. United Teachers Los Angeles is holding elections, the results of which will affect not only teachers but also school-reform efforts and city politics.

UTLA’s members are the 48,000 teachers, nurses and school psychologists in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The union’s endorsements and street troops help elect city and state politicians, and can carry the most weight in school board elections. And UTLA can impede or propel various efforts to improve the education of the 700,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school system.

The union’s record over three tumultuous years will give members much to ponder. It includes lost elections, protracted contract struggles, an explosion of mostly non-union charter schools, the response to a botched payroll system and a still-evolving power equation involving Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Much of the spotlight will fall on 64-year-old A.J. Duffy, the passionate, volatile union president who is seeking a second three-year term. But an entire leadership slate faces a rank-and-file referendum. On bread-and-butter issues, Duffy points to a cumulative 8.5% salary raise and to achieving slightly smaller class sizes while maintaining health benefits. More broadly, his team has championed the idea of individual schools governing themselves -- with teachers in a leading role. The concept plays to mixed reviews among school reform experts.

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“We are the most progressive force in education,” Duffy said.

His main challengers are a former union vice president, Becki Robinson, 60, and a current vice president, 56-year-old Linda Guthrie -- who, like Duffy, is fielding a slate of officers. Both challengers have high-level union leadership experience that predates Duffy’s.

They rate Duffy’s performance on standard contract issues as only fair, and fault him for “losing” Locke High School to a charter company and surrendering the school board to a majority endorsed by Villaraigosa. They also echo outside critics, who cast Duffy as frequently an obstacle, someone who can be obstreperous and rude, not to mention unwilling to embrace needed reforms.

“I am notorious,” said Duffy, who also can be charming. “I drive people crazy. I want it done yesterday.”

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Teachers’ mailed-in ballots will be collected and counted Thursday. Only 29% voted in the previous election.

Duffy unseated one-term incumbent John Perez, in close alliance with dissidents who had gradually built a following through their writings and activism. The leftward edge in a left-leaning union, this group had opposed many union initiatives as not sufficiently principled or progressive.

Perez said he found it particularly galling that during his tenure they argued against hard-won salary settlements that were among the highest in the county.

“For 20 years, they’ve been haranguing the membership, telling them that the union’s weak, that it can’t protect them,” Perez said of the dissident group that Duffy later allied himself with. “For 20 years, they’ve said no to every effort to develop a union-brand charter school.

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“And Duffy -- Duffy’s always been one of those guys who took after the leadership no matter who it was.”

And then Duffy became the leader, promptly walking into the storm of Villaraigosa’s bid for control of L.A. Unified. UTLA opposed mayoral control, but Duffy later agreed to compromise legislation without going first to his membership -- a mistake, he said. His membership ultimately voted to oppose the legislation, and the courts threw it out.

The mayor’s fallback was to elect allies to the school board, which again put him at odds with UTLA.

Until last year, the school board was controlled by candidates the union had endorsed, but it lost that majority to Villaraigosa in two stages. In 2006, the union spent at least $200,000 trying to elect UTLA staffer Christopher Arellano, but his campaign collapsed after revelations about a past criminal record and exaggerated academic credentials. Winner Monica Garcia sided uniformly with Villaraigosa. Then last year, UTLA split two races with the mayor’s allies, while sitting out two others won by his picks.

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“Our strong suit was not in the political sphere,” said Joshua Pechthalt, a union vice president, also running for reelection, who teamed his dissident faction with Duffy. Taking over UTLA “was a wake-up call in terms of how much more work needs to be done to organize our chapters and our teachers. And that is something you don’t understand until you are sitting in the position and you have to move the project forward.”

As in the dissident days, said Pechthalt, part of the job is putting up resistance. The union upended a plan to save money by combining classes midyear at schools where enrollment had fallen. Principals, parents and students didn’t like this proposal either, but scrapping it added to district expenses.

So did winning health benefits for part-time cafeteria workers, which had UTLA’s full support. In Duffy’s view, every new dollar spent in the service of teachers, other school staff or students helps starve a spendthrift, largely superfluous central-office bureaucracy. UTLA and the district have yet to settle on salaries for the current school year; Duffy insists that he’ll get teachers a raise.

Much of last year was dominated by the district’s malfunctioning payroll system, which over- or underpaid thousands of teachers. Duffy’s critics fault his response as either tepid or too combative.

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The mantra of local control has become the union’s answer to charter schools. And at a handful of schools, the district and union are working together to develop schools with “charter-like” freedoms over budget, hiring and curriculum.

“Even though Duffy came in huffing and puffing, he’s at least respectful of the need for progress and trying to do things differently,” said Janet Landon, a drama teacher at Wright Middle School in Westchester.

But that hasn’t stopped 129 charter schools from opening within L.A. Unified territory. Nor could the union stop the school board from turning over Locke High in South Angeles to Green Dot Public Schools, a locally based charter school organization that is unionized, but not with UTLA.

In the campaign, Duffy and Guthrie, the vice president for secondary schools, have blamed each other for “losing Locke.”

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Green Dot founder Steve Barr said the focus instead should be on how to save Locke’s struggling students.

It’s all too little, too late for English teacher Tiffany Holm, 27, who left her job last fall at Belmont High.

“I was extremely burned out,” said Holm, who, during her final semester, worked as a “traveling teacher,” someone who moves with a cart from class to class, because she didn’t have her own room. She has no issue with the union, but teaching became “a lot of stress and pressure with almost no support, while I’m trying to teach my class well.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

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